With a hidden camera, female Tunisian investigative journalist Hanene Zbiss, working with support from Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ), went undercover for three weeks to reveal how unregulated Qur’anic kindergartens were advocating a very conservative form of faith religious education for children, using different means of brainwashing. Her story received huge public attention
The Tunisian government promised to crack down on these kindergartens, closing down around 100 of them after the publication of the investigation.
ARIJ this year celebrates its 10th anniversary as the region’s leading investigative journalism organisation.
Hanene Zbiss’ story is one of more than 300 investigations broadcast or published by brave Arab journalists working with support from ARIJ that have led to important changes in Arab societies. Today the organisation celebrates having held many wrongdoers to account.
“It is our responsibility to act as the watchdogs of Arab societies,” says Rana Sabbagh, ARIJ Executive Director.
“Every story we have produced has led to some change. Sometimes it was on the spot and sometimes it took time. It shows journalists as well as readers and officials that serious journalism makes authorities think twice.”
The right to question
Rana Sabbagh describes the development of the media sector in the Arab world as slow.
“Most chief editors in the Arab world are there to serve the agenda of those who are paying the wages, be it private publishers or the governments. Whoever pays the bills gets to decide what should be said keeping in mind that the notion of public service media is not yet there in the region.”
She emphasises the importance of professional education and critical thinking, which she says has not been on the agenda of most Arab leaders.
“… because once you have critical thinkers, they will start to question the policies and actions of their leaders.”
“A general opinion is that if you criticise, you have an agenda to destabilise your country. Most people do not accept that it is our right as tax-payers to ask questions. It is our right to demand change and to hold officials accountable to their promises. Often, people will take the easier way out instead, which is to be in bed with authorities.”
At the same time, she believes that a part of the conservative society is afraid of change.
“Some people say that it is better to be under the devil that we know, than to be under a new devil that we do not know. Sometimes the new devil is even worse.”
The ARIJ movement
ARIJ started out with print production in three countries ten years ago: Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Today the organization operates in nine Arab countries.
“In the beginning it was just a few workshops with a few journalists here and there. Looking back, some of the success we have achieved was unexpected,” says Rana Sabbagh.
“We assumed that the level of professional skills would be very basic. But we realised that it is easy to develop the right skills as long as you have the right teachers and mentors, combined with the journalists’ desires to improve themselves.”
When ARIJ started, social media was nearly non-existent and most broadcasters were state-run. “We were at a point where society was yearning to know more about the truth,” she states. Today, social media is serving as an alternative to mainstream media.
Rana Sabbagh describes ARIJ as a movement that has developed over the years.
“There was hardly any journalist willing to rock the boat when we started. Today, most of the 1600 journalists that we have trained on 115 workshops believe that their job to rock the boat using facts and evidence to document the trust and to serve the public. We are not there to please the authorities. We are there both to criticise and to also recognise the positives.”
She believes it will take a long time before the overall society starts believing in freedom of expression and “to believe in the right to offend and to be offended.”
“What has not changed since the start-up of ARIJ is the deep-state structures that are supporting most Arab regimes,” she says.
“It’s not enough to just change heads of state if there is no alternative business plan that the majority of citizens can buy into and if the bureaucracy and the entrenched security structures do not recognise the importance of change and of learning from past mistakes.”
ARIJ’s success stories give the organisation several reasons to celebrate this year.
“In Jordan, they are currently changing a law that allowed a rapist to marry his victim. We did a story on this some time ago.”
In April 2015, the government said it was working with officials from concerned state institutions and NGOs to amend much of the Penal Code Law, including article 308 that has so far allowed rapists to marry their victims to get out of court procedures.
At the same time, Rana Sabbagh does see certain obstacles for investigative journalism.
“I think investigative journalism will never become mainstream media – it is too costly and too demanding. But if you have 10 good investigations every year that force authorities to change something to the better, then I would call that a success.”
ARIJ is supported by International Media Support through the Danish-Arab Partnership Programme, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Open Society Foundations (OSF).